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The new IDEA: special ed law has a few key changes

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. But is “the new IDEA” really an improvement?

Actually, the biggest news about the new federal special education law may be that so much of it stayed the same.

Students with disabilities will still be entitled to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting. Individualized education plans (IEPs), reviewed annually, will still be required for each student. Families will have the right to hearings and appeals.

Here are some key areas where the law has changed.

Less paperwork, but potentially stronger programs. In response to “paperwork” concerns, Congress eliminated the requirement that the IEP include short-term objectives, except for the small number of students who – because of complex disabilities – are taught to “alternate standards.” But in doing this, Congress also indicated that the goals of most students with disabilities should be in line with the standards that non-disabled students are expected to reach.

Thus, families who want their child to take part in the regular curriculum will find support for their position in the new law. Also, because special education services must now be “based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable,” families may have new leverage in demanding quality programs.

Transition plans: new deadline, new assessment requirement. Congress eliminated the often-ignored requirement that a plan for the student’s transition to adult life be developed at age 14. Now, a transition plan is required when the school writes the IEP that will be in effect when the child turns 16.

But Congress also made clear that the plan must be based on actual assessments of the child’s needs in such areas as postsecondary education, employment, and independent living skills – a new requirement that may prove helpful.

More opportunities to resolve complaints, but more complex procedures. If a family asks for a “due process hearing,” the school must first hold a meeting to discuss the family’s concern (a “resolution session”). Some disputes will likely be resolved this way. Mediation services will also be available, and agreements reached in “resolution sessions” and mediation meetings will be enforceable in court.

At the same time, the procedures for requesting hearings have become more complex, and an extra 30 days has been built into the timelines to give the school an opportunity to resolve the problem.

Protections against disability-based discrimination in school discipline, but some relaxation of the rules. The new law keeps many protections, including the “manifestation determination” (a decision on whether the student’s behavior was related to the disability), and limitations on when a child may be transferred to another school for disciplinary reasons. But Congress also changed the wording of many of these requirements in ways that may make it easier to move students to alternative schools. We will not know the exact meaning of some of the changes until the government issues new regulations – and perhaps not even then, since the courts may have to weigh in on some points.

Stronger teacher preparation. All special education teachers must now have full special education certification; an emergency or temporary certificate isn’t enough. Special education teachers must also have a strong background in their subject matter. For example, most special education teachers of “core” subjects – such as English or math – at the middle- or high-school level will now need to be certified in at least one of those subjects, and “highly qualified” in any other subjects that they teach. Teachers who teach only students with complex disabilities must meet different requirements, but must still demonstrate academic competence.

Stronger focus on disadvantaged groups. The new law contains provisions to support children who are homeless, in foster homes, or otherwise highly mobile. The law also requires more data on the overidentification of children of color, as well as on suspension and expulsion rates for children with disabilities (broken down by racial and ethnic group).

There’s lots more information on the Internet. Useful sites include www.ncset.org and www.ed.gov (the U. S. Department of Education; go to the “Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services”). The U. S. Department of Education is also holding public meetings in New York (June 24) and Washington, D.C. (July 12) to gather input on proposed new federal special education regulations.

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